South Africa boasts of more than 2400 wetlands that have been mapped already, with more being identified on finer scale as research continues, over 161 000 km of rivers, based on the 1:500 000 scale and has more than 300 estuaries around the entire coastline. There are more than 500 deep dams built and managed by the Department of Water and Sanitation. The country is also blessed with less developed and less quantified groundwater. These natural (except dams) resources support our social, economic and environmental needs for more than 56 million citizens, still growing. None of these water resource types are safe from pollution, in fact all are threatened well beyond 50% each. Our heritage is threatened by various sources, such as point and non-point, besides climate change.  

There is strong scientific evidence that water scarcity will pose a major threat to the attainment of aspirational development and economic goals carried in NDP: 2030, SDG: 2030, Africa agenda 2063 as well as society and ecosystem resilience. The World Economic Forum (WEF-2017) global risks report, identified water supply crisis as one of the most important risks faced by many countries. This is primarily linked to an increasing population.

South Africa is projected to experience a shortfall of 17% water supply vs demand by 2030. Currently about 98% of our water resources are allocated, as evidenced by the increasing number of inter-basin water transfers due to over-allocation in some catchments. With already frightening unemployment proportions, abject poverty and inequality, water becomes a constraint to meeting the developmental goals.

South Africa is characterized by rapid urbanisation with an estimated 71.3% percent of the population expected to live in towns and cities by 2030 (UN 2014). Urban centers provide important pull factors such as perceived job opportunities, better access to education, infrastructure and services. The challenge with urbanisation is the lack of municipality preparedness to meet the escalating demands of growing populations in cities. Marginalized urban dwellers are forced to occupy informal settlements in marginal areas, leading to overcrowding and instability.

The devastating impacts of land-uses on aquatic ecosystems have been developing over several decades during which environmental legislation was “absent”. In the mid twentieth century, the rate of aquatic ecosystem degradation escalated due to the establishment of land uses in close proximity of riparian areas.

The early industrial and mining practices (1886s) in South African urban areas set the scene for environmental degradation over the years. The establishment of numerous informal settlements increased rapidly after the end of apartheid in the 1990s. The mushrooming of informal settlements on sensitive ecosystems has been blamed on past legislations that sought to segregate and exclude most of the people from planned settlement structures. Past legislation such as the Black (Urban Areas) Act 21 of 1923 and others laid the foundation for the establishment of ‘locations’ for black people in the peripheries of cities. In addition to their environmentally precarious locations, the informal settlements were not provided with water and sanitation services, a situation that exacerbated the degradation of the aquatic ecosystem.

Given South Africa’s discriminative practices of the past, the post-apartheid Constitution has made provisions to address the plight of those with poor settlement dwellings. National legislation stresses that once informal settlements have any form of structure that residents call a home, these residents can only be relocated to another area if the owner of the land or the responsible authority can provide suitable alternative shelter. The Prevention of Illegal Eviction and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act (No.19 of 1998) requires due process to be followed before implementing any eviction. These new legislative measures have favored the continued existence of some settlements that are located in riparian areas, an unintended consequence.

Apart from informal settlements, formal settlements are also a source of aquatic ecosystem degradation. Historically, formal planned settlements in urban areas were located close to water sources. These settlements expanded until they covered large riparian areas with paved surfaces seriously reducing infiltration. During developments in these areas, most of the rivers were canalized, piped or blocked to form dams. Underground water pipes were also laid to drain the wetland areas and accommodate the construction of buildings, roads and other urban infrastructures. This resulted in major hydrological changes to many rivers, loss of riparian areas, loss of ecosystem services and functionality. 

Further damage in planned settlements has come from industrial and wastewater treatment plant effluents, and in some cases, return flows from gardens and irrigation lots. Wastewater treatment works (WWTW), are some of the most polluting establishments in urban and peri-urban areas. In the local setting, effluent from WWTW has been known to generate new flows in a water system and persistently load nutrients and associated bacteria into the receiving natural water channels, rivers and dams that are used for abstracting drinking water, or recreational use (tourism) or agriculture usage, leading to water borne diseases, fish kills, etc.

Given the water stress in South Africa, the heavy reliance on surface water systems for most of the potable and non-potable water supply, it is evident that the country cannot afford to ignore any further the degraded state of aquatic ecosystems, making their rehabilitation of urgent necessity which is in line with sustainable development goals (SDG’s-No.6 and 15 in particular), the NDP, SPLUMA, and other policies.

Complex socio-ecological systems and situations as outlined above obviously need a collective identity and collective action by all stakeholders. Central to the reversal of degradation explained above, is restoration or rehabilitation or remediation of the ecological infrastructure, uptake of green infrastructure into settlement planning and future city designs. Planners, engineers, architects, ecologists, transport experts, mining, agricultural and other disciplines must work together for healthier cities ahead of massive urbanization. A legacy and safer heritage is possible through a common vision, driven by collective ownership, co-existence and collective action! 

Bonani Madikizela is a Research Manager at the Water Research Commission.